Elephants in the Room

The United States Needs Help Putting Pressure on Venezuela

It is time for other governments to step up.

Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 26. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)
Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro addresses the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 26. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

U.S. President Donald Trump used last week’s annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to focus world attention on the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, a humanitarian disaster that a U.N. refugee official now places on par with the horrific situation in Syria.

Calling the situation in Venezuela “a human tragedy,” Trump said in a speech before the assembly that “More than 2 million people have fled the anguish inflicted by the socialist Maduro regime and its Cuban sponsors.” It wasn’t long ago, he continued, that “Venezuela was one of the richest countries on Earth. Today, socialism has bankrupted the oil-rich nation and driven its people into abject poverty.”

He added, “We ask the nations gathered here to join us in calling for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.”

At the same time, the U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions against members of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s inner circle, including his wife, his defense minister, and the head of his Constituent Assembly. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, also in New York for the General Assembly, added that the United States would provide an additional $48 million to help Venezuelans fleeing their homes for neighboring countries. Pence also noted that the United States stood squarely behind Colombia, which shares a border with Venezuela and has had to deal with much of the inflow.

Yet, even as Trump and his team have continued to ratchet up the diplomatic and economic pressure on the authoritarian Maduro regime, numerous commentators have taken him to task for reportedly contemplating imminent U.S. military action against Venezuela.

This flurry of activity was triggered by a New York Times article earlier this month, which reported that U.S. State Department officials had met secretly with disgruntled Venezuelan military officers who were said to be planning to depose Maduro and wanted U.S. assistance. The U.S. officials heard them out—evidently believing them credible enough to be a source of important information—and then declined further action.

To be sure, the story has since been goosed along by important players outside the Trump administration. Luis Almagro, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, recently told reporters, “With respect to a military intervention to overthrow Nicolas Maduro’s regime, I don’t think any option should be ruled out.” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio made similar remarks last month.

The military angle has also been the focus of off-the-cuff remarks by Trump in New York. Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, he said, “It’s a regime that frankly could be toppled very quickly by the military if the military decides to do that,” and added the following day, “Every option is on the table with respect to Venezuela.”

But make no mistake about it: U.S. military intervention in Venezuela is the very last option any U.S. policymaker is considering. Just last week, Navy Vice Adm. Craig Faller, who has been tapped to head the U.S. Southern Command, told a Senate panel that he was unaware of any administration official directing war planning for Venezuela, saying only, “We are not doing anything other than normal prudent planning that a combatant command would do to prepare for a range of contingencies.”

That is as it should be. Venezuela today is not Grenada in 1983 or Panama in 1989, where the United States employed surgical U.S. military actions with defined and achievable objectives. There are no such objectives in Venezuela that would justify placing Americans in harm’s way.

Still, given the flurry of Trump administration activity on Venezuela, the rapidly deteriorating conditions there, and the issue of military intervention, two points are worth emphasizing:

First, there is no mistaking the fact that the situation in Venezuela is a combustible mix of repression and deprivation that could ignite anytime into a power struggle among regime leaders, an uprising within the military or from the streets, a massacre of demonstrators, or even a Venezuelan military incursion into Colombia aimed at distracting from the problems at home. Any of these scenarios, and more, could unfold regardless of what the United States does or does not do—something military planners should keep in mind.

Second, there would not even be an argument about military intervention if regional countries had been doing more to isolate the Maduro regime diplomatically and economically. Rather than issuing declarations rejecting an invasion that is not likely to happen, regional governments could end such speculation immediately by acting meaningfully to defend democracy in Venezuela, as the Inter-American Democratic Charter demands. It would be crucial to replicate U.S. sanctions against corrupt Venezuelan officials, help shut down the economic networks through which they launder illicit gains, and deny them travel privileges to their own countries. Their failure to act meaningfully has done more than anything to produce talk of invasion.

Similarly, regional governments should also demand that Cuba (which more than any other country has contributed to the Venezuela crisis), Russia, and China withdraw their support for the Maduro regime. Those countries are the true interventionists—and they should be held to account.

Given the Maduro regime’s continuing recklessness and intransigence, the situation in Venezuela is going to end badly. It is in the interest of the United States—and of Venezuela’s neighbors, of course—to ensure that a coming transition occurs with as little destructive fallout as possible. To date, the Trump administration has been implementing the nonmilitary policy tools at its disposal with precision and skill to achieve that objective. It is time other governments step up to the challenge to help avoid the kind of military interventionism everyone says they want to avoid.

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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